Updated: Sep 8, 2020
The accordion is a complicated instrument. But thanks to Ernesto Zurita, a rising senior in mechanical engineering at the University of Portland, the techniques and practice that it takes to master the accordion could become a hell of a lot more fun.
Instead of learning sheet music, working one-on-one with a teacher or poring through hours of YouTube videos or self-teaching tutorials, imagine this: All you need to do is fix an instrument with new keys, fire up an app and play along to music by using keys that light up. That’s the idea behind Accord-on!, Zurita's entry into the Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge.
Leading a team of three, which includes Victoria Vasquez, an engineer studying at Oregon State University, and Stelios Papoutsakis, an electrical engineer studying at the University of Portland, the Accord-on! is among the cohort of innovators participating in the 2020 Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge.
The whimsical Accord-on! solves a real and important cultural challenge that Zurita discovered during his experience as an accordionist and an instructor. “The accordion is kind of complicated to play if you don't have a basic foundation of how to play it,” Zurita said. “I found that a lot of people, specifically those of Latin American background, would buy, say, a $2,000 accordion. They have it on hand, they try to learn how to play it, but they end up not being able to because the resources are just not good enough to actually teach someone.”
An avid musician whose abilities span from brass to bellows, Zurita found that the accordion is best learned alongside an instructor. But according to Zurita, that just isn’t always possible for many people who are interested in learning how to play the instrument.
Slavic in origin, the accordion was thought to have migrated with Europeans to the Americas sometime during the nineteenth century. Since its introduction in this hemisphere, the instrument has become a fixture in Hispanic and Latin American musical traditions.
In particular, the accordion has a strong connection to the Tejanos, a group of working-class Mexicans who developed the first musical styles that included the accordion and historically lived in the region straddling the border between Texas and Mexico. Scholars suggest Tejanos took to the instrument because it was small, easy to move, could mimic several others and cost less to hire for special events like weddings.
The accordion’s influence in music expanded broadly over the next 200 years. “Because I'm from a Hispanic background, a Mexican background, I grew up hearing a lot of popular music that involves accordions,” Zurita said. “It's not just in Mexico.
"You have countries in Central America that have their own style of music. They use the accordion. You have other nations in South America that also use the accordion. In Argentina, you have tango. In Guatemala or El Salvador, you have merengue. In Cuba, you have your own different style. In Mexico, it's the norteño or corridos or even the traditional folklore music. That's what inspired me to do something with the accordion, because it was a way to actually connect a little better to my own heritage and have other younger people my age keep that connection as well.”
Walk through any kitchen or dish pit in Portland, and you’re likely to find an accordion’s lively orchestra resounding from a boombox. In keeping with the instrument’s origins, some of those who want to learn how to play the accordion face structural obstacles. “You'd have to pay someone for music lessons,” Zurita said. “But then there's the inconvenience of being able to find time to actually meet someone to play. That's where I came up with the idea of having a method where you can self-teach through an interactive experience.”
Zurita’s invention, the Accord-On! intends to close the gap by making accordion instruction simpler and cheaper. Originally, Zurita designed a pad that would be placed on top of the accordion. Over time, however, he discovered that it would be easier to integrate his design into the accordion itself. A hat-tip to the complexity of the instrument, Accord-On! has evolved into a kit of buttons, outfitted with LED lights, that replace an accordion’s existing set of keys.
When integrated with an app on a mobile device, the keys light up to guide the musician’s movements. “Whether you're a beginner, you can start with all the basics of how to develop your muscle coordination, identify how to play notes and stuff like that. And then there's also tutorials to play songs,” Zurita said. “You can download an interactive tutorial and the Accord-on! will light up accordingly. You just play along with the lights and with the app to follow along.”
It isn’t a coincidence that Zurita’s design harkens back to a popular genre of video games that erupted in popularity in the mid-2000s. “I admired how Guitar Hero was able to not just motivate people to go back and play along with the guitar, not just pick up the guitar and try to learn it, but also become invested in the music that was around Guitar Hero,” Zurita said.
Guitar Hero and Rock Band simplified more recognizable musical instruments for a mainstream audience, and the impact is not lost on Zurita. He even wants to design a video game to coincide with the instruction. “If I'm going to be appealing to a younger generation, it has to be something that can keep them engaged,” Zurita said.
For a moment, think about what it might be like to shred on an accordion that, 20 minutes prior, you had never touched before. In this way, the Accord-On! offers possibilities that transcend boundaries and enable a cultural exchange of musical forms that wouldn’t exist otherwise. While Zurita has not yet developed a video game, that exchange is exactly what he wants the Accord-On! to achieve.
“This generation is following in the footsteps of their parents who listened to traditional music or popular music that involves the accordion,” Zurita said. “For them to already have this kind of curiosity into the instrument and then be able to actually use Accord-On! to play the accordion, I feel that would be strengthening that kind of connection to their cultural heritage.”